Growing up, I thought I was an only child. My parents were typical Mexican immigrants, hardworking and poor by society’s standards, though we always had enough. But one detail made my childhood different.
Every few weeks, my dad took me on trips to visit some “friends.” There was a lady my dad’s age and her four children, a number that eventually grew to seven. I played with the kids while my father and the woman hung out. My dad often reminded me I shouldn’t tell my mom about this. She was very jealous.
Looking back, it’s all so obvious. They even called my father “Dad,” though he was quick to explain he was only a “father figure.” But I was a little girl, who believed what she was told. I asked my dad once why he visited that woman so often, buying things for the family and taking them to the grocery store. He told me he’d been in the Vietnam War with her husband, and when he died, my father agreed to help her raise her children. I guess it’s a good story, except for the part where my father never served in Vietnam, and most of her kids were born long after the war’s end.
This situation continued for years. My father came home after midnight most evenings, except for those rare nights when he’d come home early and whisk me away to that other house. Whenever I didn’t want to go, he’d get so upset. What was so important about these people?
I was 14 years old when I found out. A relative from Mexico was staying with us while she studied and learned to speak English. She was in her early 20s, and eventually, she clashed with my very strict father over curfew and moved out. But not without a parting gift to me. “You know those people your dad keeps taking you to see?” she asked. “Those aren’t his ‘friends.’ That woman is your father’s wife and those are his children.”
My life was never the same again.
I confronted my father a few days later. He sighed and confessed that, yes, those were his children. I thought he was going to cry for a second. My dad. Could it happen? The dominant, strict-as-a-drill-sergeant father was actually going to cry? He must have realized how vulnerable he looked, because he flew into a rage. How dare she tell me. How could she betray our family like that? Didn’t she know that if my mom found out it would literally kill her?
I couldn’t breathe. Not only had I discovered my entire life was a lie, but now, if I dared to tell my mother, she would literally die. After all that man’s dishonesty, I still believed every word that came out of his mouth.
Once he calmed down, my dad tried to explain how this happened. He met my mother and the other woman at around the same time. They both got pregnant at the same time. Rather than leave one for the other, he decided to “keep them both,” as he put it. His other wife knew about my mom and me, but my mom was never to know about “them.” She was frail and sensitive and she must never find out. We were “helping” my mom by not telling her. I kept my mouth shut.
A few years later, I told a cousin all this in confidence, and she proceeded to tell my mother’s many siblings, who staged an intervention. During a wedding, my mom’s brothers and sisters cornered her and told her that my father was secretly seeing another woman and had fathered several children. They said she should leave him at once, but my mother flat-out refused. She asked that they never to talk to her about it again.
But I needed to understand why. When I asked, she said she had neither the wits nor the financial stability to raise a child on her own and she needed my father’s help. “How could you not know?” I asked. “All these years that he’s been coming home in the middle of night?” And she said, “Josie? I’m not ignorant. I just act like I am. And that’s the last time we’re going to talk about this!”
My mother’s dependence was more than financial, though. She was 40 years old and previously divorced when she met my dad, 23 at the time. As a Mexican woman born in the 1930s, my mother was destined for spinsterhood and tasked with helping her sisters raise their children. My dad was a collector of sexual conquests, even then. But he was also a way out.
It was the 1970s in Mexico, and my mother was well past acceptable marrying age. But in her, my father found a mother figure who would care for his every need, perform every chore and accept all truths and/or lies he could supply. My mom never questioned where he was or whom he was with. My mother was the oldest girl in 10 children, raised to be the ultimate caregiver. But unfortunately, my mother was only able to give him one child.
In his other wife, my dad found a woman who was his equal. In age, in temperament and in fertility. She gave him all the children his immense ego and machismo required, and she still went out on the town with him, enjoying dancing and other activities my mother no longer did.
I think my mom saw my dad as a savior. He rescued her from a life of spinsterhood and loneliness. And so in her mind, she not only owed it to him to stay but, as a Mexican woman -- as a Catholic Mexican woman -- she was honor-bound to stay. How humiliating it must have been for my mother to know that each night he came home after midnight was a night he spent in someone else’s arms. I’ll never know how she did it.
For a while, I was mad at her. How could she stay with someone like that? Is this what marriage was? Did "till death do us part" mean that, as a woman, we must accept every transgression, every humiliation, every lie without question? But in time, I forgave her. She was trying to survive and raise me the best she could.
But I did not forgive my father. I hated him for what he’d put us through. I was forced to spend time with people in ignorance of who they were, even as I was denied the blood-bond of my real brothers and sisters. My father is a hard man to love, and all of his children have complicated relationships with him, but mine is nonexistent. We haven't spoken for more than four years, ever since he came to visit and proceeded to show me emails from a woman he’d met over the Internet. It’s one thing to have two wives. But lovers as well? That was too much. I told him I had no interest in hearing about his exploits. He left amid banging doors and curse words. I haven’t spoken to him since.
He calls sometimes. He leaves long-winded voice mails about how he didn't really need me in his life and he always knew he'd die alone like a dog and good luck to you, kid. That sort of thing. It's about control. He feels vulnerable, and he hates it. What he wants is for me to run to him and lay myself at his feet and beg for his forgiveness. But I never felt like I did anything wrong, so I’m not compelled to apologize.
In my teens, I was subconsciously drawn toward men like my father. Each one was more possessive, more aggressive. But something snapped in me when I was 18. I was sitting in my living room with my boyfriend at the time when I noticed he was wearing a wedding ring. Apparently, he had failed to disclose his marriage. In that instant, I saw the rest of my life as his "other woman” played out in my mind. I kicked him out of my house and out of my life, and I resolved never to marry a man who considered me as property rather than as a partner.
I became the antithesis of my mother. Not only was I adamant about what I would accept in a relationship, but I also embarked on a career in an extremely male-dominated industry -- construction. My obsession with not turning into my mother was slowly but surely turning me into my dad.
And I did learn good lessons from my father. As a man who taught himself English with only an eighth grade education, he gave me a passion for learning and books. As an atheist, he taught me to question. He gave me a confidence and, dare I say it, ego that allows me to thrive in a place where so many women are forced out. But my father fell short of other values he instilled in me. Loyalty. Honesty. My father believed that lies were tantamount to betrayal. You could go up the clock tower and take out the entire town, but by God, you would not lie to him. Having lived my younger years in utter terror at his wrath for the smallest fib, and then to discover the depth of his own dishonesty, was cataclysmic. What a hypocrite. But my mother has always said we hate in others what we hate in ourselves.
I wonder what it would be like to have a frank and honest discussion with my dad. Did he believe he was doing the right thing? Did he convince himself it was in our best interests? Did he just want to have his cake and eat it, too? Maybe a man as damaged and as moody as my father convinced himself he needed both wives. He was raised in a country and in an era where you did not confront your parents about anything. You didn't question their logic, didn't ask for explanations, and you absolutely, positively did not judge them. Do as I say, not as I do. It was dogma.
But what bothers me most about my dad isn’t that he cheated on my mom, or that he forced two families to live separate and in secret, and it isn’t even his fraudulence. It’s that he deprived me of the father all little girls should have.
Instead I had a dad who threatened me with punishment if I told on him. He often compared me to my siblings unfavorably, noting how I was falling short. Years later, after I was already married with my own child, I discovered he did the same to them. I was the child on the pedestal they could never reach. When I asked him many years later why he did this, he responded he thought it would motivate us to do better and force us to "fight" for his acceptance. Instead, we turned on each other, and we still have no idea how to be close.
About 10 years ago, I moved my mom in with me. She still calls him her husband, even though she hasn't seen him in more than four years. She wants me to make amends with my father. She’s afraid he'll die one day without any resolution to our conflict, and I'll spend the rest of my life regretting it. She says it’s for me, not for him.
I suspect we’ll talk again. I may not like him as a person, but I still love him. He's my daddy. I still long for his approval, even after 20 years of marriage and after my own child has gone off to college. I know I’ll never have the father that lives in my fantasy world, but despite all his lies and mistakes, I have to acknowledge that I owe him my very existence. He gave my mother the child she always longed for, and he gave me one unique childhood.